East of Eden by John Steinbeck

eastofeden_johnsteinbeckI have always been a fan of John Steinbeck’s novels, and his descriptive language and relatable characters never cease to draw me in. At relatively 600 pages, East of Eden certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s not just a book; it’s a complete saga that powerfully chronicles the generations of two families. It isn’t just a retelling of the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve or Cain and Abel; it’s a story about the capacity of the human soul and heart.

As with many of Steinbeck’s works, East of Eden is set in the beautiful Salinas Valley of California. The plot involves the intertwined destinies of the Trask and Hamilton families, but mainly focuses on the development of Caleb and Aron Trask, from birth to adulthood. Although they are twins, they are complete opposites of each other, in both appearance and personality. Each brother is faced with different obstacles throughout their childhood, but both share the struggle of coming of age and accepting their individuality. Cal and Aron’s journeys to overcome this struggle and embrace their inner selves ultimately depict the strength of love and the human spirit, as well as the power of human beings to break free of their apparent destinies and choose their own paths to follow.

I absolutely love the characters and themes that Steinbeck masterfully conveys , especially through his use of metaphors and allusions. Buried within every page are countless allusions, and finding them is like a treasure hunt, attempting to uncover every single hidden meaning. Even the title is an allusion to the land of Nod, just to the east of the Garden of Eden, where Cain is punished and banished by God. The themes are also endless, but some of the most evident are good versus evil, rejection, whether or not we are our brother’s keeper, and timshel, or free will. Unlike many novels, East of Eden doesn’t focus on a single protagonist; instead, Steinbeck develops multiple complex characters, from the benevolent, virtuous Sam Hamilton, to the ruthless, malicious Cathy, to the insightful, compassionate Lee. Each character is relatable in their own ways and convey how even though we may all be human beings, we all possess different qualities that make us each unique. We may all be our mother and father’s sons and daughters, but what we make of our lives is ultimately determined by only our decisions and our will-power to exemplify timshel.

-Kaylie W., 12th Grade

East of Eden by John Steinbeck is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

sunalsorises_hemingwayDescribed as “the quintessential novel of the Lost Generation,” The Sun Also Rises is one of Ernest Hemingway’s first masterpieces that established him as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Set in Paris in the 1920s, the novel explores the disillusionment and anxiety of the “lost” post-World War I generation. The story follows the unfortunate Jake Barnes, the ostentatious Lady Brett Ashley, and a disenchanted group of American and British expatriates on their journey to rediscover their purposes in life. From parties in Paris, to a fishing expedition, the group eventually finds themselves in Pamplona, Spain during a wild fiesta and bull-fight. The group’s encounters throughout the novel perfectly reflects the Lost Generation’s moral conflicts, spiritual disenchantment, unrealized love, and most of all, the tragedy of lost hope and dreams.

The Sun Also Rises was my first Hemingway book, so my expectations were quite high, especially because Hemingway is widely known as a literary genius. Upon first look, I personally felt that the novel was quite uninteresting. The characters seem to do nothing but drink and quarrel constantly. Although the writing is simple and very easy to understand, there is no plot and no climax. Although the group does journey outside of Paris and explores Spain, they ultimately end up exactly where they are when the book starts, stuck in Paris and wondering when love and adventure will find them. However, upon closer examination, I realized that this was Hemingway’s sole purpose, to portray the hopelessness and despair of the Lost Generation, men and women who served heroically in the war and returned only to find that they no longer had a purpose in life. Just as the title implies, the sun rises every day, and the novel’s characters repeat the same routine of drinking and partying and wandering aimlessly every day.

In retrospect, while the writing could tend to be lackluster in some parts, the book was quite enjoyable, and I can now appreciate the genius that Hemingway was behind the novel. He flawlessly depicts the Lost Generation and evokes the same feeling of confusion and aimlessness that the people during the post-World War I age experienced through his words, truly making The Sun Also Rises a literary masterpiece that should be experienced by everyone.

-Kaylie W.

The Sun Also Rises is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It is also available to download from Overdrive.

The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea

devil's highway_luisalbertourreaWe have all heard the horror stories of the border and the Border Patrol, of human beings desperate to escape their lives of suffering and cross into the land of the free. As Americans, we may hold negative opinions about such illegal immigrants, but the stories we hear from the media barely scratch the surface about the struggles these people must overcome to gain the opportunity of a better life.

Desperate to improve their own lives and their families’ lives, thousands of men unknowingly fall into the trap of corrupt Mexican lords, who promise to smuggle them out and provide them with a guide known as a “coyote” who would lead them to freedom. In May 2001, twenty-six men set out on a journey that would change their lives forever. Scrambling across the border with a few personal possessions, some food, and one jug of water each, the men reach an area in the Arizona desert known as the Devil’s Highway. Only twelve made it safely across.

The Devil’s Highway, written by Luis Alberto Urrea, details the path taken by these twenty-six men from their homes in Veracruz to what they call “the north.” Their enemies are countless: US Border Patrol, the Mexican government, rattlesnakes, the desert, hypothermia, fear, and most of all, the sun, a “110 degree nightmare” that dries out their bodies, sucks out all life, and literally fries their brains to the point of insanity.

I am personally not a fan of nonfiction, yet Urrea’s artful prose is captivating, drawing me in with the story of how only a dozen men survived and how fourteen others, labeled by the US media as the Yuma 14, did not. However, The Devil’s Highway is not just the telling of a fateful event; it is also Urrea’s way of shining a light on what he believes is a backward Mexican and US border policy, which does little to decrease the flow of immigrants. A strict border policy forces people to make the crossing in increasingly forbidden, dangerous areas, which contributes to the harsh conditions that kill those who dare to attempt it. While this book most likely will not influence immediate change in the border policy, it does bring attention to and educate the public about a serious political issue. I would highly recommend this book to those over the age of fourteen (as some descriptions can be graphic) who may be skeptical toward the nonfiction genre, as this book is highly informative and reads just like a story. Urrea certainly weaves first-person testimony, geographic descriptions and illustrations, cultural and economic analysis, and poetry into an award-winning masterpiece.

Kaylie W., 11th Grade

The Devil’s Highway is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Teen Read Week: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

fastfoodnation_ericschlosserFast food has become an inescapable aspect of the modern world—especially for Americans. We drive along the freeway, see the recognizable Golden Arches, and think it’s typical to pick up an order of burger and fries after a long, stressful day since we are just too lazy to make the effort to cook a healthy meal. The obesity rate in America has soared in recent years. How can we escape the chains of fast food that have grown to be so normal in our daily lives?

In the non-fiction work, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser explores one of the largest industries in the United States, and perhaps, one of the most harmful. Focusing mainly on the McDonald’s corporation, Schlosser chronicles the rise of the fast food industry, which has grown at a remarkable rate. Why is it that ninety-six percent of American schoolchildren can identify the Golden Arches and Ronald McDonald before Mickey Mouse? How has the McDonald’s brand become so well-known throughout America and the rest of the world? From the farms where the cattle and potatoes are cultivated, to the meatpacking factories, to the restaurants, to our mouths, he explains the making behind the hamburgers and fries we consume. The aim of Schlosser’s book is to raise awareness of the unseen consequences of fast food and cause readers to contemplate “the dark side of the all-American meal.”

After reading Fast Food Nation for a summer assignment, my whole view on fast food has definitely changed. I’m sure everyone knows that fast food has dire consequences, but Schlosser brings to light many of the secrecies that are skillfully hidden from the public. The detailed account of dangers of working in the meat factories, as well as the sanitary issues of how meat is processed, is appalling. I usually don’t prefer to read non-fiction works, but Fast Food Nation was definitely a captivating, eye-opening read that I recommend to all Americans of any age, for it will forever make you question that burger you are about to chow down.

-Kaylie W., 11th grade

Fast Food Nation is available for check out from the Mission Viejo Public Library.

Authors We Love: George Orwell

george_orwellBest known for his haunting dystopian classics, George Orwell was an extremely influential British author, capable of expressing his powerful political views through his writing. Living in England from 1903 to 1950, during an era where the rise of totalitarianism was prominent, Orwell’s numerous works brought awareness to social injustice and offered a unique political perspective during a disturbed, chaotic time. Through literary criticism, poetry, fiction, and journalism, he conveyed his opposition to Nazism in Germany, fascism in Italy, and Stalinism in Russia, as well as expressed his outspoken support for democratic socialism.

1984_georgeorwellOne of his best known works is the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is set in the future world of Oceania that is occupied by perpetual war. Extreme public manipulation and omnipresent government supervision is utilized to prevent individualism and any form of independent thinking. Society is separated into the privileged and controlling Inner Party elite, the Outer Party, and the “proles,” the lowest class. The novel follows Winston Smith, whose job focuses on propaganda and rewriting history so that everything meets the Party’s needs. Although compliant and skillful in his work, Winston secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebelling against Big Brother, the supposed Party leader and epitome of tyranny.

Orwell’s second well-known work is the allegorical novella Animal Farm, which parallels the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the beginning of the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union. The novella tells the story of the mistreated animals of Manor Farm, who overthrow their master Mr. Jones and take over the farm. Initially, the animals imagine a life of freedom and equality, but eventually, the cunning and ruthless rebels, led by the pigs Napoleon and Snowball, start to take control. Suddenly, the animals discover that their world of equality is virtually impossible, as they find themselves trapped as one form of tyranny is replaced by another.

animalfarm_georgeorwellIn both of these works, Orwell compares his characters to real political figures in history. For example, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother represents Stalin. In Animal Farm, Mr. Jones represents Tsar Nicholas in Russia before he is overthrown and the pigs Napoleon and Snowball symbolize Stalin and Trotsky. I especially love Orwell’s writing, as it is chilling and insightful, yet simple and easy to understand. Incredibly influential, Orwell’s works continues to shape popular and political culture, and the term “Orwellian” is still used to describe totalitarian practices, with terms such as Big Brother, thoughtcrime, and Though Police. Even if you are not a big fan of politics, like me, I encourage you to read at least one of Orwell’s works during your lifetime, as it will make you question the world we live in and imagine what we could be living like today, if the forces of democracy had not triumphed over authoritarianism.

The works of George Orwell, and those mentioned in this article, are available to check out from the Mission Viejo Public Library, Overdrive, and Axis360

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

catcherintherye_salingerSomething I am sure we can all relate to are the struggles with facing the reality of teenage life. This crucial point in our lives can be seen as the final step away from childhood, but is the adult life really as wonderful as teenagers make it out to be?

According the Holden Caulfield, a sixteen-year-old boy struggling to cope with the death of his brother, the adult-world is full to the brim with disgusting “phonies.” His narration of his experiences begins after being expelled from school because he failed four of his five classes. Thinking he might as well experience the world before it is too late, Holden decides to leave for New York a few days before his parents are assigned to take him back home. From taking taxis, hanging in bars, and going on dates, Holden comes to realize that the adulthood is a dangerous, dark reality and is not as perfect as one may think.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is a classic coming-of-age novel that depicts one adolescent’s interesting experiences with love, life, and maturity. Holden can seem a little too critical and may complain excessively at times, but I found it especially touching that even among of all of his pessimism, Holden really does have sensitive feelings and cares for the younger children, whose innocence he wants to preserve forever. Every teenager can relate to his journey that involves him finding himself as a true individual. The criticism and cynicism towards society, as well as the confusion of growing up, is similar to the thoughts of adolescents as they mature and pass into adulthood. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as I was able to connect to many of the human emotions Holden experiences. The writing is simple and easy to understand, yet the underlying meaning is so deep, empowering, and compelling. There are some mature concepts mentioned throughout, but I absolutely recommend this book to anyone over the age of fourteen. A timeless novel, The Catcher in the Rye is surely one of those books that are a must-read for everyone, teenagers and adults alike.

-Kaylie W.

The Catcher in the Rye is available for check out from the Mission Viejo Public Library.

Gone Series Review

gone_coverOn a seemingly normal day, the town of San Perdido is suddenly hit with a phenomenon that results in everyone over the age of fifteen disappearing…all adults are just simply gone! To the confusion of the remaining children, a giant force-field now surrounds the entire area of Perdido Beach, preventing anyone from entering or leaving.

Abandoned and frightened, the children are exposed to the threat of conflict, danger and death, and life with no adults or form of authority. With no electricity and phones and televisions no longer working, the town becomes a prison for the “surviving” children who must find a way to maintain order amidst the chaos. To top it off, the children start developing strange powers, some even deadly, that causes extreme manipulation and sides to be chosen. The ensuing fight becomes a catastrophic battle for survival, while the thought of time running out looms over everyone—because the day you turn fifteen is the fateful day you disappear, just like everyone else.

Written by Michael Grant, the Gone series is breathtaking young-adult series that’s packed to the brim with mystery, action, suspense, and (of course) romance! The books are titled: Gone, Hunger, Lies, Plague, Fear, and Light. In my opinion, the series is fast-paced and frighteningly gripping, for Grant is able to successfully write a dark, brutal account of a world of children with no authority that describes the death and moral dilemmas they must face.

The characters are all complex yet relatable, because they are all kids, just like you and I, who are struggling with the reality of the world they are thrown into. Even though there is some mature content, especially in the last three books of the series, I would certainly recommend the Gone series, which can be considered a modern-day Lord of the Flies, to those over thirteen years who are fans of The Hunger Games and hard-core dystopian-science fiction admirers!

-Kayle W., 10th grade